Just the other month we had the pleasure of chatting to Richard Armitage when he was promoting Pilgrimage, but as luck (and his productivity) would have it, we were given the opportunity for a catch up about his latest voice performance, with the Audible release of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story comes as part of The Monster Collection, a Gothic trilogy which also includes a reading of Frankenstein by Dan Stevens and Dracula by Greg Wise. There’s also ‘an exclusive introduction by Dr. Maria Mellins and Dr. Peter Howell, Senior Lecturers in Gothic literature at St Mary’s University, London’ who, strangely enough, are both people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years – it’s a small world indeed.
Our conversation with Mr. Armitage found him on form as usual, discussing the processes and freedom of audio work, the nature of horror, his forthcoming projects and just a little mention of The King under the Mountain…
How did Audible approach you about working on Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde?
You know, I’ve worked quite a lot with Audible. I do something for them probably once a year, sometimes twice. I usually do a long form book and these little short things that take sometimes a day, sometimes a day and a half. I did a couple of things for Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago, I did one for Christmas and then I’ve never done a Halloween one before, so they came and just said “Would you like to read this book?” and it’s something I really enjoy doing, so I said yes and I like the Gothic genre, I think it kind of suits me!
Did they give you a choice of books to read, or did they have Jekyll And Hyde in mind for you?
No, I mean this was the one that they wanted me to do, but sometimes there’s a selection and I wasn’t familiar with this book, I was familiar with the story because a lot of people are, so it was a real surprise to me when I actually read the material and it’s interesting because you always assume it’s a much bigger, heftier novel because so much has been written around it, but actually it’s just a series of letters – almost like a kind of doctors file, which I found fascinating.
It’s interesting you say that, because I think particularly with classic horror stories and Gothic literature, there have been so many interpretations over the years, you sort of assume you know the story and when I re-read Frankenstein a few years back, I was amazed by how little it was as I remembered, because it had been almost diluted by the volume of film and TV versions.
Yeah and that’s a story, within a story, within a story isn’t it? There’s sort of three levels of Frankenstein.
You were saying that you’ve done some long form books for Audible before, but it must be slightly daunting compared to reading a script, because there’s not a quick way of doing it?
You know what, when I read a script its interesting – I didn’t quite realise I did this until I talked to other people about how they prepare their work, but when I read a script I actually read the stage directions out loud, because it really – and I actually speak the lines out loud – because it sort of changes how you’re connected to it and I like to read stage directions, because it kind of sets the scene for me in my imagination and I’m really old fashioned when it comes to storytelling and the simple form of an audio book, compared to a very sophisticated high tech, high definition movie, there’s not really much difference – it all starts with ‘Once upon a time’ and I mean, I don’t literally say those words [laughs] but I read stage direction in the same way.
I’m looking at a script at the moment and it’s amazing how you interpret them just on the page and of course when they get made into movies or… it’s not always the same as you’ve pictured them, but with an audiobook I’m in control and I get to sit there and tell the story in the way that I see it. It’s taken a long time for me to trust what my vision is and it is probably quite traditional, but it’s unique and everyone else will have a different version of that story and giving them something which will trigger their own imagination is really important, I think.
And is there ever a discrepancy between what’s in your head and how it sounds out loud, particularly if you’re reading the whole narrative and how is it you interpret character voices?
It depends on the author really, a lot of the time a more historical author, or a period author they tend to I think, because there wasn’t the ability to create characters on screen, or I think they were so reliant on just the printed word to describe what the character looked like, how they sound, how they stand, their appearance, all of those things – there’s actually more detail in period drama than perhaps in contemporary writing, because we’re actually more used to a visual medium, than a literary medium in general, I think.
So with someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, or Dickens, it’s very, very clear from the outset what that character is going to look and sound like and occasionally they will slide into a stereotype, or an archetype should I say, but I kind of enjoy that. I think there’s something about… I do think the bridge between stereotype and archetype is very narrow and often when we find an archetype, it’s because it’s a sort of a recognisable standard and it’s an easy way in. You know when you’re talking about a doctor, for example in Jekyll And Hyde, we probably assume in the period that they are well educated, probably quite bookish, so it’s easy to present that as a form, but you know it’s quite nice to break those stereotypes as well – I did that a little bit with this book.
And when you say about having the freedom to interpret the material, do you have a director of sorts, or is it more of an audio technician in that respect?
it’s a little bit of both, I mean they are an audio technician, but more often than not I can kind of say to them “Do you think this is a good voice for this character?” and they’ll say “Yeah, make it a little bit more like this, or…” and they also keep track of the different voices that you’ve created, especially with something like Dickens, where it’s an extensive amount of characters.
Often you find yourself repeating a style, because he’ll create hundreds of characters, so they’ll keep an eye on that, but you create this in a vacuum, so it’s good to run it by somebody and say “Does this work?” and they’ll say “Yeah, yeah I’m really enjoying it, it’s funny, or make it a little bit deeper” so it’s good to have that person to bounce off.
So it’s almost like having a live audience, than a director per se?
Yeah very much so, but I also think that Audible and the director, they just like you to get on with it and they’re interested in your interpretation and one of my big things is that I love creating the voices of all these characters, so it’s much more of a performance rather than just a read, but I guess if I was tackling something which was more like documentary, it would be a much more neutral read I think, so that it’s not distracting from the subject matter.
When I was thinking about Jekyll And Hyde, just in general terms, I think what frightens the most is that for a book that was written in 1886, it’s never lost its resonance. There’s a sense that society evolves technologically and in other ways, but my reading is that civilisation sometimes feels like an unnatural constraint for humanity, like we’re constantly fighting base urges.
Yeah, no for sure and the thing that was really interesting to me and it made it all the more real, is because like I said before, it feels like a series of documents that would’ve come out of a psychologists file, so there is a moment when you’re reading it, where you think ‘this doesn’t feel like fiction, this just feels like an account of a man’s life who was being analysed for drug addiction and mental health issues’ and you know that’s when it kind of brings it right up to the present moment, because I feel like there’s a conversation happening – I mean not to bring it too much onto the nose – but the conversations we’re having at the moment about mental health, anti-depressants and this feeling, especially in men, it’s really interesting and effectively in the story, the protagonist commits suicide and I think that’s exactly what you just said, we can move on technologically, but on a humane level we are dealing with the same kind of issues and to me that was a fascinating core to the story.
And I always think with horror because, like a lot of genres, it gets brushed with this very broad stroke, so the reason I’ve always loved and championed it, is because it can contain so much more than people perceive it to be. It’s always been able to be overtly political and people almost disregarded it, no matter what extreme message you put in there. What’s your relationship to horror in terms of literature and films? Did you grow up as a horror fan?
I’ve always fought against the genre, to be honest. I don’t necessarily see this as horror, I see this as… it’s Gothic and it’s rooted in the psyche and the psychology, so that side of horror fascinates me. The sort of Stephen King area is like a modern version of it, but when it moves into slasher horror, which is just blood and guts, that’s when I switch off and if it tips too much into a socio-religious world, in terms of The Omen and things like that, I also switch off a little bit.
But this kind of thing, which is medical analysis, I do find that kind of fascinating. Horror is very much du jour at the moment and I think it’s a sort of comment on where we’re at politically [laughs] and as a society. I think people are turning to horror because it’s a little bit like bloodletting, if you pardon the pun! I think we go to this place, because we sort of want to almost vomit our disease inside – I feel like we’re not in a great place at the moment and we look to horror to somehow purge ourselves.
It is an especially cathartic genre, films are often described as a rollercoaster ride, but with horror it can be a cathartic process to unburden by engaging with it.
Yeah, I think transformation is interesting as well. I think people really enjoy the idea, because we’re always trying to escape from ourselves a little bit, whether it’s having half a glass of wine just so you relax a little bit, or much more extreme versions of that. In every aspect, even in entertaining ourselves, we want to be transported and this story is sort of the root of that idea of transformation and I think I’m always fascinated with that, we’re always trying to get away from ourselves a little bit.
That’s interesting, because when you were doing Hannibal that material is broadly seen as a horror, but the Red Dragon era is a lot more psychological in its power to a disturb.
Yeah, I mean it’s a man who suffers so much self-hatred he literally is wanting to get out of his own skin, or transform his body physically and he tattoos his back, because he just wants to transform into something other than himself, someone much more powerful and again, maybe it’s a male thing, but not necessarily you know? I think most guys will hit the gym, because they just think ‘I want a better body, I don’t want to be myself, I want to be a better version of myself’ it’s just interesting isn’t it?
Definitely, the strive for inner peace is almost like a lifelong mission in some ways! Last time I spoke to you, for Pilgrimage, you mentioned you were working with the Irish film board on a turn of the century true story, is that still progressing?
It is, I mean I went off to work in Berlin for five months, so everything goes on hold, but it’s my little passion project, so I’m not going to let it drop, but it’s still in development, but I’m going to keep ploughing away at it!
You’ve got it in the background as it were!
Yeah, I’ve got another piece that I’m doing in February with Julie Deply (My Zoe), which is the next focus of attention, which is a really cool story about a couple who are in a broken marriage and they’re sort of nursing their little girl – it’s a kind of tragic relationship story and then it moves into… touches into science fiction towards the last third of the piece. It’s a great piece and she’s written it and she’s going to direct it, which is fantastic.
Ah amazing, and are you about to start filming that?
We go into prep just before Christmas and we start filming in February and we’re going to shoot it in Berlin, it’s myself, Julie Delpy, Daniel Brühl and Gemma Arterton, so it’s a small cast, but it’s a fantastic story.
And back to Berlin for you as well.
Berlin, London and Moscow, so it’s going to be an interesting little adventure!
When I posted the last interview I did with you, I’ve never seen so much action on my Twitter account as it’s normally a fairly mundane affair! Your fans were incredibly supportive, so I asked the RA US if there was a particular question they had, one of them is TV based, one is film, one is stage and one is audio, so which would you prefer?
Umm… let’s do stage.
Ok, so they said that the Macbeth announcement was a lovely surprise, but being so deft at comedy were you looking for other stage projects before that gets underway and what are the chances you’ll search out another socially relevant comedy like Love, Love, Love?
Okay, so the Macbeth announcement was probably a bit premature – we’ve been dancing around the idea of that play, but there’s three other Macbeths happening in London in 2018, so we might be backing away from that idea! [laughs] and returning to another idea that we had, of a more socially… something that hasn’t been done before, a Greek play.
So that was probably a kind of red herring, but I am looking. I recently went to go and see Mike Bartlett’s new play Albion, at the Almeida, which is probably the best play I’ve seen in the last five years. So I loved working on his material and I am looking for comedy, but I also love something which just triggers that sort of socially conscious subject matter and if you can achieve that through comedy, or black comedy, then I really think you’re into where theatre is at its very best, so I’m aiming towards something like that.
I was fairly restrained last time we spoke and I didn’t mention The Hobbit at all, but I was curious because it dominated your life for so long, especially with the multitude of press junkets – how do you feel about it now, with a bit of distance?
I miss it. I loved working in New Zealand, I loved working with Warner Bros, I mean I’ve worked with them three times since actually and you know I worked on Ocean’s 8 at the beginning of this year, which will be premiering in June next year, so I’ll be back in that cycle of a big movie junket. It’s interesting because you put as much effort in to working a film, as you do making a film and I used to really dislike that side of it, but I actually love it now, because the time when you actually get out and come face to face with the fans – sometimes with independent movies they go to festivals and they get a limited release and you don’t always get to sort of meet people and talk about the project as much, so in that respect I could talk about The Hobbit for the rest of my life because I had such a good time doing it.
I was very close to working with Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh this year on Christian Rivers’ latest movie (Mortal Engines), but I couldn’t quite make it work, because of Berlin Station, but I know that I’ll work with them again in the future and I’ll be back in New Zealand at some point, so The Hobbit has left such a legacy with me, that it’s sort of a little beating heart that I’ll always be grateful for.
That’s a lovely way of describing it. And you should know that my three year old son, who has seen select parts of the first two Hobbit films, is already composing new songs for you, as he seems to think that you and the dwarves sing a song called ‘Special Pie’!
Special Pie! [bursts out laughing) Well we probably do! That’s a good song, we need to go and write that now, Special Pie!
I’ll copyright the lyrics for when he finishes his masterpiece in a few years! [he continues laughing!) Thank you so much for your time again and good luck with what’s next!
Thanks a lot, nice to talk to you!
Richard Armitage, thank you very much!
The Monster Collection is available now on Audible.